The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the workplace in many ways—not all of them good.
Last year, most states issued states of emergency and ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close their doors. Bars, restaurants, gyms, nightclubs, barber shops, golf courses, nail salons, and movie theatres were shuttered. Sporting events and concerts were banned. Schools were closed. In some states, churches and synagogues were forced to suspend in-person services and hold services in the parking lot, online, or not at all.
Yet, in some states, liquor stores, gun shops, and marijuana dispensaries were allowed to remain open. Each state published its own list of what business activity was essential or non-essential. In New Jersey, for example, bike shops were allowed to stay open, but only for repairing bikes, not selling new ones.
In a market economy, every business is essential because every type of industry relies on, stimulates, and necessitates the other industries. Consumers decide which goods and services offered by businesses are essential and express their opinions by parting with their hard-earned cash. And of course, every business is essential to the owner of the business, the family of the owner, the employees who work at the business, and the customers who patronize the business.
In a centrally planned economy, the government decides which businesses are essential, which goods and services offered by businesses are essential, within what price range things can be sold for, what occupations people should be trained for, and what workers should be paid. Once it is accepted that the government can and should decide these things, then no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government deciding which medical procedures can be performed, what medicines can be dispensed, which books and magazines can be published, which movies can be made, what food can be grown, what clothing can be worn, and what sporting events will be allowed.
Fascism and socialism under the guise of “public health” are still fascism and socialism. Just as “public health” should not trump personal liberty, so also should it not hinder commercial freedom.
Former congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul had it right at the very beginning of the pandemic: “Governments have no right or authority to tell us what business or other activity is ‘essential.’ Only in totalitarian states does the government claim this authority.”
One silver lining from the pandemic that relates to the workplace is that it has rekindled the debate over occupational licensing, so much so that it might actually result in changing the workplace in a positive way.
Each of the fifty states requires some of their residents to get permission from their state or local governments to open businesses, engage in commerce, work in certain occupations, have particular vocations, or provide services to willing customers. There are also some federal licensing requirements.
Depending on the state, these occupations include doctors, midwives, nurses, lawyers, dentists, accountants, barbers, auctioneers, child-care workers, animal breeders, manicurists, interior designers, emergency medical technicians, upholsterers, bill collectors, fire-alarm installers, make-up artists, crane operators, fishermen, security guards, security-alarm installers, coaches, taxidermists, sign-language interpreters, locksmiths, bartenders, taxi drivers, pest-control applicators, funeral attendants, and travel agents.
Proponents of occupational licensing would have us believe that without such government intervention in the economy, businesses would be full of untrained, incompetent, uneducated, unqualified, unscrupulous workers who would take advantage of consumers, provide them with poor quality service, injure them, and possibly kill them.
During the pandemic, some states implemented temporary or emergency policies that waived or loosened occupational licensing requirements. Some state lawmakers are even discussing making those changes permanent.
On the federal level, it is not only some congressional Republicans who are saying that the requirement to have a license to work in many fields blocks Americans from well-paying jobs—President Biden is saying the same thing. In fact, the president recently issued an executive order, “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” (14036), that addresses this very issue.
In an official government “fact sheet” about the executive order, we read:
Overly burdensome occupational licensing requirements also restrict competition. In certain occupations, such as skilled construction trades, licensing is critical to protecting public health and safety and increasing wages for workers who acquire in-demand skills and knowledge. In other occupations, however, it can impede worker mobility without countervailing benefits. Today, almost 30% of jobs in the United States require a license, up from less than 5% in the 1950s. Fewer than 5% of occupations that require licensing in at least one state are treated consistently across all 50 states. That locks some people out of jobs, and it makes it harder for people to move between states—particularly burdening military spouses, 34% of whom work in a field requiring a license and are subject to military-directed moves every few years.
The executive order “encourages the FTC to ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility.”
There are a number of problems with occupational licensing.
Occupational licensing results in higher prices for services.
Occupational licensing often excludes otherwise qualified individuals who have a criminal record.
Occupational licensing limits competition.
Occupational licensing reduces employment opportunities for immigrants and minorities.
Occupational licensing stifles entrepreneurship.
Occupational licensing results in the misallocation of resources since it forces those who may have valuable experience and training in a particular field to do something else if they cannot meet the licensing requirements in their field.
Occupational licensing makes entry to a new field more difficult for those wishing to change jobs.
Occupational licensing is illogical since the occupations necessitating a license and the requirements to obtain a license vary widely from state to state.
Occupational licensing is irrational since it often doesn’t coincide with the public health, safety, and welfare risk that supposedly results from unlicensed practitioners.
Occupational licensing prevents licensed job-seekers from moving across state lines to seek better employment opportunities since there is little interstate reciprocity when it comes to such licenses.
A reduction in the number of occupations requiring a license would certainly be a welcome development, but libertarians go much further than President Biden or congressional Republicans would ever consider going. They have always argued that government licensing of any occupation in any way is an illegitimate purpose of government and that private certification or accreditation on the free market is sufficient to ensure quality, health, and safety.
No American should need permission from the government to work. Government licensing is just as illegitimate as government mandates ordering “non-essential” businesses to shut down. It is never the proper role of government to prevent people from freely contracting with other people to provide them services and exercising their natural right to make a living.